The screenwriter for the hit motion picture Harriet, about the legendary Black woman who freed many slaves via the Underground Railroad, said one Hollywood executives wanted White actress Julia Roberts to play Harriett Tubman.
In an interview with Focus Features that has now gone viral, renowned screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard said a studio exec wanted Roberts, the white Oscar-winning actress of the movie Erin Brockovich, to play the slave-era heroine, instead of a Black woman.
The movie Harriet had been gestating — some would say rotting — on the shelves for over a quarter-century before it was made.
“I wanted to turn Harriet Tubman’s life, which I’d studied in college, into an action-adventure movie,” Howard told Focus Features. “The climate in Hollywood, however, was very different back then. I was told how one studio head said in a meeting, “This script is fantastic. Let’s get Julia Roberts to play Harriet Tubman.”
As laughable, egregious and insulting as that suggestion was, this next statement was even worse for Howard’s ears to hear:
“When someone pointed out that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, ‘It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.'”
Of course, the 2019 film stars Black British actress Cynthia Erivo as Tubman.
Back in the 1990s when Howard was starting out, he said the climate in Hollywood was radically different from today in terms of making and promoting movies with Black leads and Black themes. However, with the phenomenal success of another slave film, the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, coupled with the historic performance of the blockbuster Black Panther, has opened enough Hollywood eyes to get Harriet made.
Harriet, which is now in theaters, also stars Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters and Vanessa Bell Calloway.